The Fraud PNGi Couldnt Report! The Case of Self-Dealing in the Lands Department

The Lands Department has a state-of-the art fraud reporting system. That is unarguably a good thing, given the significant number of land related frauds nationally.

Here is what the Lands Department website user is greeted with, when they enter the fraud reporting system.

A comforting message.

Here is what happens when PNGi tested it out, with a real example we wanted to report.

This screen appears for users when they click submit, after documenting their complaint:

Ok so no problem, that is a set back. Lets just get in touch with the Lands Secretary and alert him directly about serious potential impropriety in his department.

No luck! Here is what happens when you send the Lands Department electronic mail.

So unfortunately despite multiple attempts, PNGi has been unable to report a potential fraud involving a senior Lands Officer.

The source of our concern is a recent judgement issued by The National Court.

Lets unravel the case which PNGi can’t report direct to the authorities!

This victim in this case is Henry Kaunuba. According to the National Court, Mr Kaunuba had purchased Allotment 11, Section 24, Bomana, Port Moresby on 9 May 2000, through the NASFUND home ownership scheme.

On 23 April 2019, Mr Kaunuba was issued with a show cause notice by the Lands Department. This notice was issued over his alleged failure to meet improvement covenant stipulations in his state lease. Improvement covenants require state leaseholder to build structures on the land of a certain minimal value.

In 2019 Mr Kaunuba was in the process of completing construction work on the land, when he claims unbeknownst to him the Lands Minister forfeited the land on 23 October. The forfeiture was due to alleged breach of the improvement covenant, unpaid rental, and a failure to respond to the original notice.

Now here is where things get a little more suspect.

The land was then granted to Mr Michael Jalbaring, a Department of Lands and Physical Planning employee.

The Lands Minister exempted the land from advertisement, according to the court, on the basis of bad-advice from the Lands Department.

The gazettal notice states: “I HON. JOHN ROSS, MP Minister for Lands & Physical Planning by virtue of the power conferred on me by section 69(2)(d) of the Land Act 1996 and all other powers enabling me, hereby exempt from advertisement the land described in the Schedule referred to hereunder7.

The special reason being that the applicant; MICHAEL JALBARING who is a permanent employee with the Department of Lands and Physical Planning, has shown his personal interest in developing the said land through successfully completing the due process of forfeiture thus making this land available for Tender”.

Yes you read that right, land was directly granted to a Lands Department official, without advertisement, because they wanted it and had gone to the trouble of (illegally) forfeiting it.

Not surprisingly the reason tabled by the Lands Minister earned scathing rebuke from Justice Tamade who observed:

The special reason by the Minister is contrary to the intent and purpose of section 69(2)(d) and should take the ire of every Papua New Guinean queuing up to apply for land in this country. There are also public servants seeking to apply for land here in PNG. What makes a lands department officer responsible for Titles special? What is special about their case that the law should bend for them? The decisions by the Minister first and foremost leaves the hands of the Secretary for the Department of Lands or his office. They vet every documentation for the Minister’s approval, and it is the Secretary that recommends to the Minister and advises the minister as to matters that warrant the Minister’s approval. The Minister in my mind cannot act on his own accord, he acts on advice from his Department and from the Secretary for the Department of Lands who is the custodian of the office of the Department of Lands and Physical Planning. I am of the view that the Minister was grossly ill-advised resulting in a decision that has circumvented the true meaning and intent of the law in regard to section 69 of the Land Act for the grant to the Fifth Defendant.

Most concerning are assertions made by the court that the lands officer implemented the forfeiture process in order to personally acquire the land:

Mr Jalbaring as an Officer in Lands Department being the Titles Examiner was privy to the file and information pertaining to the Plaintiff’s State Lease. The Minister’s decision in the Notice of Exemption dated 21 August 2020 is evident that Mr. Jalbaring was personally interested in developing the subject land thereby he successfully completed the forfeiture process thereby making the land available for tender. I find that the forfeiture is therefore contrary to the process under section 122 of the Land Act and therefore, it is a clear case of fraud on the part of the Defendants and also includes elements of constructive fraud.

This decision was passed down on 11 November 2022.

How did the Lands Department respond to the judgement? Well we do know they gave Mr Jalbaring an award for outstanding performance, later that year. The award is signed  by Lands Secretary Benjamin Samson.

Clearly the Lands Department printer works, sadly just not their email or website.